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Book Reviews

Rules of Engagement:
A Life in Conflict

by Colonel (ret’d) Tim Collins

London: Hodder/Headline Publishing, 2005 406 pages, £20.00

Reviewed by Captain Dave Devenney

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Book coverColonel Tim Collins became famous, not only for his magnificent oratory before leading his men into battle during the Second Gulf War, but also for the allegations levied against him of war crimes. This former Commanding Officer of the Royal Irish Regiment’s rousing eve-of-battle words eventually even found their way onto the walls of the White House. In Rules of Engagement, the now-retired British Army officer has produced a superlative and highly recommended autobiography for all those interested in modern warfare.

The work highlights the complexities of modern warfare by cataloguing the present, multi-dimensional battle space. In particular, it highlights the role of the media and the need for a uniformed public affairs branch – something the British Army still does not possess. Indeed, upon the arrival of the Army-embedded media in Kuwait, Colonel Collins noted: “I had not dealt with the media before in any great extent, but I was increasingly a believer that in addition to their overt role of informing the public, they could play a key part in Information Operations in the modern military climate.” Collins’s interactions with the media appear throughout the book as the embedded media members report military actions, and as accusations of misconduct by service members are leaked to the media, prior to formal charges against those members being brought forward.

The book begins with operations in Sierra Leone in August 2000. Collins then moves on to discuss his experiences on operations in Northern Ireland and in the national firefighters strike held there, during which his men provided temporary firefighting support. The experiences in Northern Ireland provide good background to the account of his experiences during the Gulf conflict. It is clear that British forces were able to use their substantial experience of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland to excellent effect in situations in Iraq, such as in the control, pacification, and containment of hostile crowds. The highly sophisticated approach applied in Iraq, and the humanity displayed to the Iraqi population during the battle group’s movements within Iraq are reflective of previous operations that the ‘Royal Irish’ conducted in Northern Ireland.

In a Canadian context, Collins also speaks of the training the British Army continues to conduct at Camp Wainwright, and he speaks highly of the training facility itself, as well as the expansive Canadian countryside.

The substantial section of the book devoted to the Second Gulf War is exceptional. Much detail is provided with respect to both the wider role of Collins’s regiment, and individual operations that were carried out. It is clear that Collins understood what needed to be done in his area of responsibility, and he established relationships with Iraqis who held positions of influence who could support his mission. Collins certainly ‘led from the front,’ and, at times, this colourful character appears eccentric in his fishing jacket, quipping with Irish humour: “You’re all saved ...the Paddies are here, and this time we’re on your side!”

Collins does not shy away from the accusations that he was responsible for war crimes committed by his personnel while he was deployed in Iraq. These accusations included the abuse of Iraqis, firing at looters, and the maltreatment of service personnel from the United States. He also does not hide his feelings of abandonment and disillusionment with the British Army. For example, in his prologue, Collins progressively alludes to his frustration towards the Director of Army Communications, initially stating: “Despite the rumours, the Army would not let me down.” However, by the end of the prologue, he has written of a specific unsatisfactory occurrence: “What was to be done? Who was planning to challenge this? The answer chilled me. Nothing. No one. I was on my own.” Indeed, and ironically, Collins finds greater support with the reporter who first recorded his famous pre-combat speech, Sarah Oliver of The Mail on Sunday, who also helped advise him about the war crimes accusations being levied against him. Lack of communications support eventually drove Collins to retirement – specifically, his lack of faith in the system and the apparent lack of public affairs support from the military were contributing factors in his decision to leave.

The allegations against him were eventually proven false, and Collins later received, not only a promotion, but also appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). But his faith in the service had been severely shaken, and he left the military to write, to provide editorials for British newspapers, and to appear at various speaking engagements.

This book is not, however, simply a collection of the experiences of one man. Collins is able to bring a far wider perspective to war fighting, and he draws upon the lessons taught by the great military philosophers, such as Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. In balance, and on a lighter note, his Irish humour is evident within the captions of the images from Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and the Gulf, and these images and their captions enlighten rather than distract.

Collins ends this fine offering with some powerfully argued conclusions and recommendations regarding the present state and direction of the British Army. He is clearly very angry about the cuts currently faced by British forces, by operational ‘overstretch,’ and by the lasting detrimental ramifications he believes these situations will create. Indeed, recently, his own former regiment experienced massive cutbacks when three Northern Ireland-based battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, consisting of some 3000 soldiers, were demobilized.

Overall, this is a very well written, highly readable account of Collins’s personal experiences, and it provides a well-reasoned, wider view on the current issues now facing the British Army. It also highlights the role of the media on the battlefield, indicating the potential of this entity and how it can best be utilized during various information operation campaigns.

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Captain D.A. Devenney is currently a Public Affairs Officer at Canadian Forces Base Sherwater in Halifax.